The Myth of Learning Styles

Dec 23, 2014

Image © Duncan Hall

By Ani Aharonian

Looking at how students study, it is obvious that people approach learning in different ways. Some students like to read the textbook once through, some highlight and annotate the textbook extensively, some write and rewrite their notes, others record and play back lectures, others still make and review flashcards, and so on… But what do these differences in study strategies reflect? There are many possibilities. They may reflect variations in the way that people learn, or it may reflect differences in work ethic or learned habits. Researchers have mistakenly interpreted these differences in preference to reflect differences in the way that people learn and learning styles has become a popular and widespread pedagogical approach.

The main claim or hypothesis associated with the learning styles approach is that matching instructional style to individual learning styles will yield superior learning. A 2012 survey of educators in the UK and Netherlands revealed that 94% believed that students perform better when they receive instruction in their preferred learning style. Aspiring educators are being taught that instruction should be tailored to the distinct learning styles of students. Management and business programs are also increasingly propagating this claim in the context of workplace.

Perhaps this idea has taken strong hold because it is an appealing one. It is consistent with our desire to perceive ourselves as individuals, it is a positive and optimistic proposition that each person has equivalent potential to learn if the instruction can be matched to their individual learning style, and it also places the responsibility for students’ achievement (or lack thereof) on the teachers and the educational system rather than the students.

What evidence is there that this approach, around for a few decades now, affects learning outcomes? Hardly any.


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19 comments on “The Myth of Learning Styles

  • Very interesting article. And a good one, as well.

    It’s also a good reminder of the value to stick to evidence and question reality instead of believing something true because it just feels right. I mean: it feels right that everybody has her/his own way of learning and that, if contents are presented accordingly, learning will be easier and better. It sounds so reasonable.

    Too bad it’s wrong -or so it seems.

  • What happens when the ‘learning style’ is wrong. Better to fix the problem at the source.

    However, I hate rote-learning with a passion. Better study would be what kind of teaching methods makes better students. Do exams with textbooks in hand? Or with the student notes, like supervised coursework?

    I’m not an educator, so… But surely the question would be what is the best method to make what you learn stick, or what is important to learn. The material, or the methods, like developing good automated learning and thinking skills. Eventually, if the stuff is actually interesting and useful, you will keep a mental image anyway, or you will know a way to access the material for future reference.

  • Hi obzen,

    As a teacher I remain skeptical about this stuff. Teachers often go off half cocked at the latest psychological research and over-extend dramatically what they see with all kinds of confirmation bias getting in the way of seeing what is really working.

    As teachers we will often read some of this speculative research and some will attempt enthusiastically to embed it into practice. So typically they will pour huge efforts into designing their planning, work programs and lesson plans in an endeavour to implement it. Good things can come of this, you will begin to get to know your students a bit better (because you are spending hours of your time for example trying to ascertain learning styles) but it’s a complex animal and confirmation bias slips in. You might for example have a student how is almost illiterate, you adopt a more visual teaching style and this kid is going to do better while the kid who is visually illiterate will do worse.

    Basically after decades of teaching you realise that what ever truth is in these theories educators almost always jump the gun. Success of these strategies almost always comes (I believe) from the enthusiasm of the teacher which can be contagious.

    These individualised learning simply doesn’t work when you have 28 students in the room, no-one has the ability or time to prepare 4 x 28 lesson plans a day. It must always be a compromise (even if the theory is true) My best teaching and my best successes (as measured by student data) have been when I have been personally passionate about what I am teaching. Trouble is governments in an attempt to put a positive spin on their term push new agenda’s which means usually embracing some new and shiny academic theory of education, teachers are then forces to sit through in-servicing on this (usually too perfunctory to really teach the theory anyway), we then have to spend countless hours re-writing all our work programs and lesson planning, rounds of ascertaining your students learning style (in this case – but there is a new emphasis every couple of years) then writing lengthy documents to create an accountability paper trail so HODS and principals can show they have put their staff through the reflective processes, followed by a year of implementations where if you have a problem with how the logistics are working in the classroom of whatever approach is attempted you are shouted down by admin (if you are foolish enough to open your mouth). So no adjustments are made to make the thing actually work in reality and it is quietly dropped a year latter as the new shiny theory emerges and it starts all over again.

    Anyway better get off my soap box 😉

    Cheers

  • I recently learned of a pilot program somewhere in New York which all children have a choice between group lectures, independent study, etc. Their learning is monitored through some sort of computer program similar to Pandora. All learning is individually tailored to each child’s needs and progress. I think it will be interesting to watch the results.

    I do think learning styles differ, but it is difficult to determine the best way for each and every child. One teacher in a room of 15 – 35 kids cannot be all ways to everyone.

    Highlighting, reading text etc. struck me as being an odd example. People can and do learn better in various ways usually with a larger skill set (highlighting seems minor.) I, myself cannot organize file folders alphabetically. If I do, a mess results. My folders are organized spatially – generally in boxes or different locations. I did this back in my college days as well. Until I created a visual of information in my mind seeing the “big picture” I had difficulty remembering what I read.

    What strikes me as odd is the number of schools that are separated into magnet or satellites such as schools of art and schools of science. It seems as if this is only done with inner city schools and not suburban – possibly due to size. (Yes, suburban districts will transport kids to other schools within the district to attend a vocational program… )I question if schooling based on interests is really the best way. Frankly, the idea of spewing out hundreds if not thousands of kids who focus on the arts is scary. ( I say this as a former art teacher and current designer.) It is my experience (and some ancient statistics) that only 10% of a population is creative/artistic and of that 10% only about 1% go on to art/design school. Of that 1% about 10% are at the top of their class. A high percentage of artists progressively drop out of the arts each year until the age of retirement (according to census reports) when retirees interested in art spike up the statistics. Bottom line – I know that if my district required a higher level of science courses, my life might be entirely different.

    The facts remain. The single factor which determines school/testing success is socioeconomic status. The wealthier the parents and district, the more likely the child will excel. You can see this in your local newspaper when they publish results comparing all the local districts. I have noticed that a local school district (middle classed) which has one of the highest per pupil expenditures in the state ( due to large business/corporate taxes) have test results consistent with middle-classed students – the additional money seems to not factor into success.

    So what is it? Expectations of the parents? Expectation of the kids? Work ethic? Rebelling against “white” establishment? It seems to me that the education system has problems that cannot be resolved in their current state.

  • That’s cool, and I understand there’s a lot of effort wasted on meta-learning techniques and so on. Plus, you put the future of the kids in danger if it doesn’t pan out. From what I gather, it looks like the strategy in education is “best to stick to the tried and tested”. Or the changes are very slowly integrated.

    My life story now, and I’m just recalling from my personal experience. The best teachers I had were the ones that didn’t rely on just ‘knowing stuff’. but rather made you think outside the box, and were actually interested in their subject (interested in maths, who’d thought it possible). Not exactly what academia were looking for mind you. When inspectors were around, they tended to stick more to the script (meaning, I, the teacher, talk, you, the student, take notes).

    The worse teachers had no such problems. A particular favorite imbecile of mine was an history teacher where his lectures consisted of students basically copying word for word text books, or whatever he had written down. For. two. hours. I’m not even kidding. Then we’d be regurgitating that slop come exams time. What a fucking waste of time that guy was.

    I had enough and just refused to take his notes, I did too in some other classes that were just boring me to death. Principal’s office, punishment (in the form of lots of extra ‘supervised’ hours), worse grades ever, strangely, awesome at maths. My parents were even called, started to get tough with me, and they were all (that’s the principal too) talking about moving me to another school, and I was set back a year. Miserable time all round, I hated that fucking school, the whole system, and wasn’t really sure why at the time, but now I know.

    I don’t think there needs to be a teaching methods tailor-made to each individual students. But in general, the way the whole system is rigged, the pressure to succeed and conform, that really messed me up, and I wasn’t like a special case or anything. Well, I suppose I was a little bit, I just didn’t play nice. Schools I thought were just sheep factories. You just memorize stuff, that’s all you actually need to do to pass pretty much anything, get your grades, then move on. Maybe then, when you reach uni, you can actually do something interesting. Maybe. Or just give up and join the employment queues. It’s still the same as always. If I had kids, I wouldn’t wish that on them. Surely, there’s a better way than this. But grades! Grades! GRADES! Memorize that shit!

  • Hi QuestioningKat,

    so many interesting questions in your post I hope you don’t mind me asking some questions and making some comments.

    All learning is individually tailored to each child’s needs and progress. I think it will be interesting to watch the results.

    I’d be interested to know how this program decides that learning is tailored to a particular students needs. The danger I fear is it must be essentially teaching to the test. As a former teacher of course you’d know that typically governments will give a syllabus which is general and broad and can be tailored to meet local needs, and gives opportunities for students to learn in a wide varieties of ways a diverse range of facts and skills. As the computer program must work of a known set of answers and cannot without A.I. be able to interpret say an essay or a work of art it must be gauging process on testing probably multiple choice. So whoever wrote the program has decided that this is the only continent way to gauge progress. They would need to be careful that they do not just measure the success of this based upon the limited results of this one cohort, or through this one method of testing.

    My teaching is being vastly interfered with due to the drive for data, success in state and national testing which because it has been published for specific schools has ceased to be diagnostic and has become competitive and thus schools are bringing in people to coach kids how to get the best results in multiple choice (inspite of what they may actually know).

    In relation to you comments about selective art schools, I share your feeling, but it strikes me that there is plenty of opportunity for science to be taught extremely well with art it seems the divide I think you correctly identify may be cultural (would Leonardo Da Vinci have recognised a difference?). a good example x-ray art Feyman’s comments also seem appropriate here I sure you are familiar with these. When they were making the first Ice age a large number of nuclear physicists were employed because they understood light and could use that knowledge to help create realistic visual effects by helping program the software to work out light bounces, subsurface scattering of light, textures of materials etc. I personally think lack of understanding of science and technology has held back art for ages.

    So what is it? Expectations of the parents? Expectation of the kids? Work ethic? Rebelling against “white” establishment? It seems to me that the education system has problems that cannot be resolved in their current state.

    Do you think we have a cultural problem? What part does the increased pressure on two working parents bear on this? How does the push of governments to get kids into private schools (public I believe in UK) enter into this? It’s a huge cultural problem and I’m not even sure we know how to test it.

    I’m going away for Xmas, hope to see some more responses on this topic when I get back, all the best.

  • So what you are saying, is that if learning is second nature to you, then there is no problem. But if you have a learning disability, no matter how slight, then you deserve to fail because you obviously are lazy and have developed bad learning habits? No further action by teachers is needed? I beg to differ.

  • Hate it or not, there are some things which must be learnt by rote. How else do you learn to count or learn the alphabet? The problem is when rote learning is all that is expected, as in much of vocational training. Education begins with rote learning some essentials, and then progresses to understanding.

  • So essentially this article is saying “there’s no evidence”. I absolutely agree we should always ask for evidence but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater!

    First, learning styles are not a limiting conclusion. Teachers are ALWAYS trying to relate and convey material in multiple ways. That’s not about creating 24 (or whatever) lesson plans – it’s about using analogous & literal material in written, verbal, visual and physical modes. This isn’t about “special needs”.

    For evidence, a teacher doesn’t really need to go any further than to look at their own teaching. Sometimes things in a classroom doesn’t go perfectly – maybe a single mode of delivery is depended upon – and one or more pupils just doesn’t grasp the topic. Every educator I’m sure can remember trying to deal with this and, in real time, needs to find a different way of conveying the concept.

    But then, that’s not as broad a view of learning styles as what some have applied. The idea of people having fixed traits seems ludicrous, limiting and nothing more than pigeon-holing (to me at least). Perhaps it’s this extreme (IMO) in application of pedagogy; to only concentrate on where people find their own strengths rather than development of “weaker” areas, deserves the spotlight?

  • A lot of rubbish is talked in educational circles about learning styles and “individual tuition”!

    Back in the real world, in a one-hour lesson, a teacher can interact with a whole class of 30 for an hour, individuals separately for 2minutes each, or some middle position working with groups for some intermediate time. Likewise, teachers do not have hours per child available for preparing custom individual courses for each individual child in each individual lesson.

    The use of commercially produced standard materials, and effective planning of professional time, is the key to efficient delivery.

    Modern video and interactive computer learning programmes have great potential, providing schools are properly tooled up with these, and their use supervised.

  • With Reckless I endorse the view that “learning styles” and their pursuit as the “trick” of efficient teaching may well lead some astray. My daughter was led astray first by deflecting her from a phonetics approach to reading new words towards the “by inspection and context” approach. From being ahead of the curve she fell behind, discouraged from her successful strategy. Then she was assessed as being a “visual learner”. Worse she believed this. Major slow down. Now, much later after resetting things, she has a vocabulary well ahead of her peers, is an accomplished writer, articulate end effective arguer. Her thinking and learning style are clearly more literary than visual.

    Memories are better formed by having a super-abundance of tags by which to find them. Deliver information in multi-modal form for all. The analysis of pupils’ learning disposition may be wrong, may be wrong for that subject or that particular instance. It has taken me this long to get a good insight into how my own brain works. How a teacher could do the job in the ten minutes allocated, I can’t begin to understand.

    I am utterly with Alan on using exemplary materials and IT to delivery a lot of core information. There are superb teachers out there, inspiring, oozing passion. They can do a lot of the heavy lifting these days of smart media. There is no excuse for poor materials in the classroom. Teachers need time to observe their kids whilst they take this stuff onboard.

    I am also a keen advocate of some rote learning. Maths is a case in point. The lumpen process now taught to reduce the rote learning component in arithmetic has fatally damaged mental arithmetic as a skill. This is a disaster for immediate problem identifying/solving. (Have we got enough paint?) In making judgments between things, values are essential. Identifying if a problem exists in real world terms may require a number of sums doing. I am appalled at the poor ability of recent graduates to pre-empt problems because they are no longer encouraged to do mental arithmetic all the time. Its simple enough, but the crass view that calculators meet that need is infuriating. They absolutely don’t.

    The teaching mode that I advocate (as an addition not an alternate) is one of inculcating a sense of problem finding and owning. If you can make things better you will get to feel great. If you find a problem of your own to fix, any knowledge you acquire in pursuit of that problem’s solution will be seen as intensely valuable.

    Perhaps my favourite annecdote of early(!) learning was with a group of Italian six year olds. They were asked what they could do together to make their school a nicer place. After lots of discussion they decided it would be nice to encourage more birds into the school grounds. Education flowed from this. Why were the birds not coming here? What birds? Why would they want to come here? How to find out? How to make? How to work together? Why did that go wrong?

    Putting immediate purpose into every activity and depending those from a greater purpose that is owned secures in brain cells the “finding out to fix the thing”.

  • phil rimmer Dec 26, 2014 at 8:51 am

    I am also a keen advocate of some rote learning. Maths is a case in point. The lumpen process now taught to reduce the rote learning component in arithmetic has fatally damaged mental arithmetic as a skill.

    For those interested in a combined approach, when I was teaching children their tables, I had them make a square of a hundred+ numbers in rows of 10 ( usually in the back of squared exercise books) for each multiplication / division table: –

    1 -10
    11 – 20
    21 – 30 etc.

    They were then set to count and colour in the answer squares.

    2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, etc.

    3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, etc.

    This allowed reference for multiplication and division, together with understanding the interaction with base 10 numbers. It also illustrated that the number sequences did not end at 10×2 or 12×2.

  • Tony.

    I agree with your comments regarding the fact that material should be presented in a number of different ways and formats ..as it has always been. Unless teaching post-school, content is not present once only, it should be presented numerous times because this could be the foundation for more complex concepts. It would be incredibly boring to cover the same ground in exactly the same way repeatedly.

    From a personal perspective, I know how I learn. When it comes to learning mechanical processes ( such as pre-programming a personal recording device) reading the instruction booklet is the very last mode of attack if I want a successful outcome. I need to physically walk through the procedure, learning as I go; at times ringing the expert and having he/she talk me through it.

    My modus operandi is quite different to that of my husband, who would simply read through the instruction manual and have it all make sense.

  • So what you are saying, is that if learning is second nature to you, then there is no problem. But if you have a learning disability, no matter how slight, then you deserve to fail because you obviously are lazy and have developed bad learning habits? No further action by teachers is needed? I beg to differ.

    Hi Blair,

    I’ve been away for a few days for Xmas so I haven’t been here to respond in short order, I’m also not sure you were focusing on my comments specifically (best to hit reply if this was your intention). However if you were responding to my comments then I have have obviously not been clear enough and if I have thus caused offence then you have my genuine apologies.

    I can assure you that if any theory of mind is validated then I am fully committed as a teacher to embrace it fully. However if it is not then my changing all of my planning and work programs is time wasted and hence lost opportunity to do something with that time that is of more benefit. For this reason I am often offended by our precious time being wasted on theories that have no backing or validity which has been much of what my time has been wasted with. Before school starts after the Xmas break I and all the other teachers at the school representing some 70 teachers and admin will be forced to sit through 2 whole days (without students of in-servicing). If that time is wasted on unproven education theory training then even from an economic standpoint (we are all being paid) then that is a massive waste. I am happy to do in-servicing I am currently spending my evenings doing an hour or 2 a night learning programming, robotics, 3D modelling, CGI, photo and video editing (ask my wife how she feels about this), in past years I learned to build Dobson telescopes (with my students) and did postgraduate science studies at the local university to enhance my knowledge in weak areas. So I’m not afraid to learn new things but if I am going to devote time and energy when I have precious little I don’t think it is unfair to expect that it have been toughly and rigorously peer reviewed.

    I also do not adopt in my pedagogy as system of learn my way or it’s your fault. I accept the concept that students learn things in different ways but that is a bit different to what the stated learning style theory is actually saying. What learning theory actually states is that each individual fits into one of their pre-determined categories (visual learner, audible learner etc.) they suggest you test your students (label them with this style) and then teach them in such a way as to meet their needs. Now this is impractical as I can’t teach the same lesson 7 times (or however many learning styles they are now pushing), I need to choose and get feedback from students in class as I do it. I look for who is glazing over and who is getting it, I ask students questions and try to find you what they know and try different things all the time. I use many different strategies all the time – and this is nothing new. However the learning styles model if true would suggest streaming kids into class groups that are visual learners, etc. Is this smart? What if the truth is more nuisanced? If it is you are doing a very great disservice.

    Pushed to an extreme the learning style hypothesis if enacted would result in kids being only exposed to learning styles they are already strong in. I am good at art and had to struggle with maths. So yes I would have been happy in high school to do no maths at all and not learn to think mathematically. Studying astronomy in adulthood was therefore a struggle, I had to learn and excel in maths I’d failed at high school, but I was able to develop that part of my mind and do it well, even find it beautiful. Learning style theory would say teach algebra through visual literacy – yes where possible, and there are some good tools (but none I hadn’t seen and used before it became popular) but there are times when you have to work symbolically, abstractly, as a former commercial artist I know what it is to think in pictures and I can tell you when I am solving a mathematical equation I am not thinking in pictures or visually at all. I think we need to learn to develop our whole brains- but I’m open to be convinced otherwise, if there is evidence, and that is my point.

    I also think that cultural problems have a huge impact on learning I see kids in high school barely literate who are allowed to stay up to any hour of the night and have parents who are disengaged or openly hostile to school. No amount of learning theories will help this and failing to address these issues is a problem that needs to be addresses (unfortunately we as teachers are gagged – like all public servants and parents are not so politically we have a limited voice). It is much easier for politicians to play up the lazy teacher angle.

    I hope that makes my position more clear, regards.

  • hi Reckless.
    I look for who is glazing over and who is getting it, I ask students questions and try to find you what they know and try different things all the time. I use many different strategies all the time – and this is nothing new. However the learning styles model if true would suggest streaming kids into class groups that are visual learners, etc. Is this smart? What if the truth is more nuisanced?

    Thanks for stating it as it is. For anyone to teach effectively constant feedback is part of the process of interaction. After a short time in front of the class you know the types needing a different method of explanation. It’s a pity that any time needs to be wasted in documenting this.

  • Reckless.
    PS. I really liked in-service courses, ‘back in the day’.They provided a welcome relief from the coal face and I was usually happy to continue on out of hours or during the weekend. ( as long as they were interesting, of course).

  • Hi Nitya,

    Happy Xmas!

    I really liked in-service courses, ‘back in the day’. They provided a welcome relief from the coal face and I was usually happy to continue on out of hours or during the weekend. ( as long as they were interesting, of course).

    I like them as well when they are well run and founded on evidence (I’ve run a few in the technology area over the years), even with learning styles I don’t have a problem listening to it if presented as something to consider, what I find increasingly frustrating is this data driven drive to attempt to alleviate a highly complex problem with quick fixes. My preference is always the more interactive ones. I do yearly in-servicing with another teacher of I.T. at another school he has a different skill set to me so we get together for a day and play with techniques and software and teach each-other what we have picked up over the year great bloke and powerful and inexpensive in-servicing (the school only has to cover our classes which it can often do with internal relief), and I have learnt more from him having one-on-one for half a day effectively and learning at my own pace than any other method of in-service.

    regards

  • Back in the real world, in a one-hour lesson, a teacher can interact with a whole class of 30 for an hour, individuals separately for 2minutes each, or some middle position working with groups for some intermediate time. Likewise, teachers do not have hours per child available for preparing custom individual courses for each individual child in each individual lesson.

    Don’t forget getting them into the class, marking the roll, equipment set up, in the case of I.T. logging onto computers and dealing with behaviour issues (which is about 20% of an average lesson -sometimes as high as 50% for me where I teach). The best you can do is to try to mix up learning and teaching styles as much as you can during the lesson or if helping individual students try out different approaches, there is often a roadblock far back in the picture though, you can’t teach quadratic equations to kids who can’t add 1/2 + 1/2, no amount of learning styles will help there, you need to understand how many concepts they students haven’t got yet that they need to understand then how to try to catch them up to that level. Of course if I had such a kid in my class and by the end of that lesson I taught them how to do that I would personally consider this a successful lesson, note that the school and education system would currently not be testing their ability to add 1/2+1/2 and would therefore be considering me, that student and my time spend getting them there as a complete failure.

  • Reckless.
    I have learnt more from him having one-on-one for half a day effectively and learning at my own pace

    Merry Xmas to you too! It was often the case that the first in-service would attract a full group of 40-50. Subsequent classes would attract smaller numbers and often there would be a handful of ‘stayers’ at the end. It was at these times I learnt the most.
    The concept of ‘different learning styles’ always appealed to me as I could see it in action. That’s not to say that providing an individual lesson plan for each student was at all feasible, but varying the learning experience was part of my repertoire.

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